Swords to Plowshares and the National Veterans Legal Services Program Provide Comments in Rare VA “Listening Session” About Regulatory Bars to Benefits Based on Character of Discharge
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE - October 7, 2021
WASHINGTON - On October 5 and 6, 2021, Swords to Plowshares and the National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP) participated in a rare opportunity to provide oral remarks to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs as it takes action to update and clarify its regulatory bars to benefits based on a service member’s character of discharge. Over the span of two days, 28 people provided comments on the record to VA, unanimously urging the agency to expand VA access to more less-than-honorably discharged veterans than permitted under either the existing or proposed rule.
The listening session this week was only the second time VA has provided an opportunity for members of the public to make oral comments on any proposed rulemaking. The session highlighted the importance of VA’s rulemaking and the widespread interest of veterans and the public in the proposed rule.
“The current regulatory bars contribute to higher rates of homelessness, suicide, unemployment, and untreated mental health conditions among less-than-honorably discharged veterans,” said NVLSP’s Director of Litigation Renee Burbank. “Improving the character of discharge rule is not only the right thing to do legally, it will save lives.” Swords and NVLSP, along with many other commenters, urged VA to remove all regulatory bars not required by statute, and to exclude only service members who were discharged for serious misconduct that did or should have resulted in a dishonorable discharge.
As Swords and NVLSP explained in their prior written comments on the regulation, VA’s proposed rule is inconsistent with the statute and Congressional intent. Changes to the proposed rule are also necessary to enhance principles of equity and fairness in VA benefits. “If you’re Black, if you experienced Military Sexual Trauma, if you’re LGBTQ-identified, if you’re a combat veteran, if you’re a post 9/11 veteran – all of those experiences or identities raise your likelihood of having a discharge status that will exclude you from VA care – under both the current and proposed regulations,” explained Maureen Siedor, Legal Director for Swords to Plowshares. During the listening session, other commenters agreed. Juliet Taylor, an Army combat veteran and staff member at the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center, recounted multiple stories of service members who went absent without leave in response to rape or bullying and then received other-than-honorable discharges. ”For VA to sit in judgment of these veterans just perpetuates the harm and further victimizes these veterans.”
In the listening session, several veterans and service members forcefully explained why they were asking VA to expand benefits eligibility. “As a Soldier, I swore to never leave a fallen comrade,” said Matthew Handley, a former noncommissioned officer and Iraq War veteran. “Tens of thousands of my comrades have fallen to the invisible wounds of PTSD, TBI [traumatic brain injury], military sexual trauma, and other mental health conditions. What would truly denigrate my honorable service would be to leave those comrades behind.” Bradford Adams, a former Civil Affairs Officer and Afghanistan combat veteran, spoke about his experience knowing fellow service members who were discharged less-than-honorably. “I don’t want to see him homeless. I don’t want to see him without medical care. Don’t do that for me. That doesn’t honor me.”
VA’s proposal to modify its character of discharge regulation is a result of Swords and NVLSP’s petition for rulemaking submitted in December 2015. Nearly five years later, VA responded with its new proposed regulation. Last year, with the pro bono assistance of Latham & Watkins LLP and the Veterans Legal Clinic at the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School, Swords and NVLSP provided written comments on the proposed rule.
Read the full comments made by Swords, NLVSP, and their pro bono counsel at Harvard Law School at the listening session:
• Renee Burbank, Director of Litigation, National Veterans Legal Services Program [link]
• Maureen Siedor, Legal Director, Swords to Plowshares [link]
• Dana Montalto, Clinical Instructor & Lecturer-on-Law, Veterans Legal Clinic [link]
About Swords to Plowshares
Founded in 1974 by veterans, Swords to Plowshares is a community-based not-for-profit 501(c)(3) organization that provides needs assessment and case management, employment and training, housing, and legal assistance to approximately 3,000 veterans in the San Francisco Bay Area each year. Swords to Plowshares promotes and protects the rights of veterans through advocacy, public education, and partnerships with local, state, and national entities.http://www.nvlsp.org//images/uploads/NVLSP__Swords_to_Plowshares_Underserved.pdf
The National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP) is an independent, nonprofit veterans service organization that has served active duty military personnel and veterans since 1981. NVLSP strives to ensure that our nation honors its commitment to its 22 million veterans and active duty personnel by ensuring they have the benefits they have earned through their service to our country. NVLSP has represented veterans in lawsuits that compelled enforcement of the law where the VA or other military services denied benefits to veterans in violation of the law. NVLSP’s success in these lawsuits has resulted in more than $5.2 billion dollars being awarded in disability, death and medical benefits to hundreds of thousands of veterans and their survivors. NVLSP offers training for attorneys and other advocates; connects veterans and active duty personnel with pro bono legal help when seeking disability benefits; publishes the nation's definitive guide on veteran benefits; and represents and litigates for veterans and their families before the VA, military discharge review agencies and federal courts. For more information, go to www.nvlsp.org.
For NVLSP: Patty Briotta, office 202-621-5698, firstname.lastname@example.org